Michael Howard's opportunism proves that the Tories are back in the game

The Conservatives have never been sure whether to portray Mr Blair as a Thatcherite or a left-wing revolutionary
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Michael Howard has asserted his right to criticise the post-war chaos in Iraq. In doing so he has made more waves than at any point since he became leader.

Michael Howard has asserted his right to criticise the post-war chaos in Iraq. In doing so he has made more waves than at any point since he became leader. Columnists on the right, including no less a figure than the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, are disdainful. Mr Howard's political opponents can hardly contain themselves. They begin by calling him an opportunist before going on to deliver their killer blow, that his intervention would demoralise our boys in Iraq. They imply that our boys could put up with going to war to disarm a tyrant who had no arms and the post-war violence, but Mr Howard's modest criticisms of the political leadership would be all too much for them.

The hysterical reaction stems from the political origins of the war. Only two individuals could have stopped the Prime Minister from supporting President George Bush, the leader of the Conservative Party and Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair was relatively relaxed about the one million demonstrators who marched through London in the late winter of last year. In his view they did not threaten his hold on power. But if Mr Murdoch and the Tories had opposed the venture from the beginning, I doubt if he would have gone ahead.

The two of them in an informal alliance have forced him into a near impotent caution over Europe. Mr Blair would have been similarly cautious had they opposed the war. As it was Iain Duncan Smith and Mr Murdoch were gung ho from the beginning. Mr Blair knew that if the war went badly wrong (which he didn't anticipate) the Conservatives and The Sun were neutered. Of course these calculations were not all that mattered. Evidently he believed the war was "the right thing to do". Nonetheless there are lots of right things that he has chosen not to do when faced with what he regards as a daunting range of political opponents.

And now suddenly Mr Howard is not entirely playing to the rules. He supports the war, but not all that has happened in the aftermath. In the short term this modest re-positioning has landed Mr Howard in trouble, rather than the Prime Minister. This is not surprising. Mr Blair's fondness for political triangulation, his tendency to stand to the right of his own party, presents problems for the opposition. In this case most right-wing commentators support the Prime Minister's ardent Atlanticism. So a Conservative leader is bound to come into criticism from his own side when he raises any questions relating to the war.

Even so Mr Howard should persist in the tiny amount of political space he can legitimately claim as his own. There are two reasons for this, one a matter of substance and the other tactical. It is reasonable for supporters of the war to probe Mr Blair about his supposed policy of public loyalty and private candour in his dealings with President Bush. In an illuminating BBC interview at the weekend the former US ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer suggested that there had not been enough private candour.

Sir Christopher should know, as he was present at some of the meetings between President Bush and Mr Blair. At no point it seems has the Prime Minister sought to exert pressure on the US administration to bring about an outcome other than one the President had sought. Instead he has offered useful advice - that is very different from influence - and made offers the President could not refuse: let's try to get the UN on board. If we fail I will back the war anyway. If Mr Howard did not probe critically the House of Commons would become an even more absurdly unrepresentative arena in which only Charles Kennedy dared to articulate the worries of most voters.

Of course Mr Blair can reflect with good cause how much worse this whole nightmare might have been under a Conservative prime minister. Imagine Margaret Thatcher at the helm, supporting the US without a glance in the direction of the UN and screaming "Rejoice" as Iraq implodes (imagine also the newspapers praising her for her heroic courage, including probably some of the liberal newspapers swept along in the adulatory tide). But that does not mean Mr Blair should be freed from intense questioning by senior Conservatives, some of whom are genuinely perturbed by his conduct in the war and its aftermath.

Nor is it in Mr Howard's self-interest to keep his head down. The Government's strategists are brilliant at turning the strengths of political opponents into weaknesses. William Hague acquired an early reputation for mocking New Labour's more preposterous claims. Mr Blair responded by projecting Mr Hague as little more than a comedian. "He is good at telling jokes," he would observe dismissively. In response Mr Hague stopped telling his jokes, got a crew cut and moved to the right. The Prime Minister was troubled no more.

Mr Howard's strength is a forensic ability to focus on areas of prime ministerial vulnerability. Ministers dismiss this as opportunism, putting pressure on Mr Howard to stop asking the awkward questions.

From the beginning the Conservatives have never been sure whether to portray Mr Blair as a Thatcherite in disguise or a left-wing revolutionary. When Mr Blair and Mr Brown imposed their early tight public spending targets in 1998, the Tories accused them of being reckless and irresponsible in their imprudence. Still they fall into public-spending traps with their shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, incapable of disguising a hunger to wield his axe, although unable to specify clearly where his axe would fall. On the introduction of foundation hospitals and top-up fees the Conservatives declared outright opposition when a subtler approach would have been to argue that these were good right-wing policies that did not go far enough. On the war they strode the other way by offering unequivocal support.

With Mr Howard's modest criticisms of the war perhaps we are seeing the end of a period when the Conservatives fell into every trap set by Mr Blair, which would be good for them and indeed for the Prime Minister who is too often tempted to adopt a moderately right-wing position partly because he knows the Tories will be reduced to naive chaos, striding even further to the right in their attempts to establish clear blue water.

Mr Howard still has a long way to go, a mountain to climb. He knows that the Liberal Democrats will be the main beneficiaries of any anti-war votes this summer and probably in the general election too. But I suspect his election last year will come to be seen as one of the more significant events in this parliament, the moment the Conservatives saved themselves from oblivion. Mr Blair would be under less pressure from his own party if he faced the tragic-comic leadership of Mr Duncan Smith. Last year some were predicting the strange death of the Conservative Party. Now it is back in the game, troubled and unsure of how to progress - but it is back.

Slavish support for the handling of post-war Iraq would be a sign that it was still gripped by a death wish.